Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Paso's Westside, Wild, Wet, Windy, Wacky, Weird, Weather

I should have guessed something was up when the second week in January was summer in winter. Off our back deck the temperatures were in the mid to high 80s for 13 straight days. Believe me, I was checking the vines for bud swelling daily towards the end of the month. Not only the days were balmy, but so were the nights. Coldest it got at our home overlooking Paso's westside Cerro Prieto Vineyard was in the high 40s. For Paso, that qualifies as weird. The vines definitely looked like they were trying to swell their buds, but never got to the point of bud break. No question I was worried about the summer weather we were having, but as long as it didn't precipitate bud break, I felt we were okay.

Then came February(plus last two days of January). Winter returned with a vengeance, and our lows registered mid to high 20s in the colder valley vineyard. Winter here at Cerro Prieto dragged on well into Spring, when suddenly, one day winter fled and summer arrived. Well after March 21st we had our first day of not spring, but summer. Once again we were basking in 80-90 degree weather, without the intervening Spring. This time we did get bud swelling, and not long after, bud break. It was late, but out buds came. The only way we knew it was Spring was because of the monster winds that visited during what was nominally called "Spring". The first winds registered in the high 60+ mph, and evidence of their presence were huge piles of 50 and 60 foot live oak trees, knocked down en masse, with one pile numbering 12 trees piled up like a bunch of big splinters. We had a second such event just below our house, but it was composed of only 6 trees worth of splinters.

2005 was a big year for us with rain totalling some 42". In 2006,2007,and 2008, we had 16", 12", and 9", respectively. It is no secret that 2009-2010 was a huge rain year, and we registered 41", which ran clear into April. Here in Paso Robles, for every mile west of the 101 Freeway, the rain is roughly 1" more/yr for every mile west you go. So there were some folks 15 miles east of town who got 15-20" of rain, whereas normally they only got 7" or so. The wacky part was the late rains, which tried their best to sabotage grape farmers by raining hard, every time we mowed, weedeated, macheted, or hoed. In all we did all four tasks up to five times each. Part of that is my fault, as I had refused to use pre-emergents(that can contaminate the ground water). But next year, we use pre-emergents, because each trip thru the vineyard with hoes or machetes, costs out at $4000. That's right. It is expensive...especially the way all this came down.

The weird part was during bloom, which although absolutely perfect at outset, was submarined by gods of wrath bringing not only heavy late rains, but 2 monstrous wind storms...neither of which a grower wants during bloom. The first I already alluded to. The second, some 3 weeks later, and still during bloom(but near the end), again was in the 60+ mph range, with gusts strong enough to knock down more trees...this time the biggest pile of live oaks numbered sixteen. From a distance it truly looked like a tepee made of broken sticks, but up close it looked like a giant mass of snapped 20" diameter trees that had been broken in anger by some monster from the sky. The Weber Grill ended up in the pool, despite being well anchored down. During that windstorm I turned the outside spotlights on near midnite, and was amazed to see massive oaks being blown into near horizontal position...and not just several. They were all virtually at 90 degrees to their normal upright position.

Wind aside, the weird and wacky continued when once thru bloom it appeared that only the Merlot had been hard hit by the late rains and winds. The fruit set resulted in many clusters looking like banana clusters, not grapes. Instead of one long rachus there were 4 or 5, each half to a third the length of normal. There were "aces and spaces" among the odd looking rachi, with early estimates at Merlot fruit set somewhere at only 1/3 normal. Instead of .33 lbs/cluster, we looked to have maybe only .15 lbs or less. As it turned out, the rachi filled in, and we ended up with .25 lbs/ cluster, but as yet, we have nary a berry that has started to go thru veraison.

Matter of fact, we started veraison July 3rd in 2009, but had not one berry veraising by August 3rd this year. August 4th we had 3 berries of Pinot Noir beginning color change, and just a week later, all Pinot and most Syrah is pretty well thru veraison. This was not a long protracted veraison as we have had the last 3drought years...this was veraison in hyper-speed. The rest of the story is the Cab Sauv, which needed only a week from start to finish in some blocks, whereas other blocs have yet to move. This is definitely due to cold, as our lower Cab has yet to turn and our higher elevation Cab is finished.

As I write this today, it reached 89 degrees and was a beautiful day for grapes. Unfortunately the fog didn't lift until well past 10 a.m., so we didn't get near the heat and light we so desperately needed. One old salt said that he didn't even keep his heat/light days' data this year because we couldn't possibly catch up. That may have been so, but there is no question that with the rain, the cold weather staying around until the last two days, veraison has been way speedier than the last 3 years. Of further note, the springtime that we got cheated out of in March and April turned into 7-10 days of blistering summer, followed by a return of cold spring weather for the last 5-6 weeks.

I have lived here for 33 seasons now, and can say that without a doubt, this year is one for the record books. The high pressure system on the East Coast is making the midwest, south and east coast all insufferably hot. The low pressure system we have had here for the last 6 weeks is doing the reverse to us as on the east coast. There is a definite La Nina current offshore the Central California Coast, with water temps running 10 degrees cooler than normal. The Bay Area and Napa are similarly situated, with record cold days virtually daily. Altho I do not have first hand knowledge , I have heard Napa is about 3 weeks behind, vineyard maturation-wise, which is what half our vineyard looks like, too.

With super cold days, the marine air hanging around all day (La brisa in Spanish), and fog every morning, it has been essential to maintain good mildew spraying routines, with Westside mildew a real problem for those that missed spraying dates. Anyone who is going totally organic is bound to have mildew problem this year, when it has been a setup for mildew for almost two months now. If we can get more days like today...good and hot...then we may be okay, especially if the rest of our Cab and Merlot go thru veraison. Additionally, those vineyards with low crop yields
(2-2.5T/acre)will have less chance of mildew than those with heavier crop loads.
Also we have been hedging and leaf pulling on the shaded side of vines to help airflow and sunlight get to grapes and leaves. An added benefit of these two tasks is that sprays, when used, are much more effective.

Overheard a buyer and grower's rep discussing the wacky weather and they agreed, "This ought to be a great year for Syrah". The unsaid thing was this could be really tough year for Cab. A lot of Westside Cab is way behind...but as we have seen here at Cerro Prieto, once it gets kick started, it races thru veraison. We just need to get it going. Also, it would be nice to see summer before we are thru autumn. The way this year is going, however, no one has a clue as to what lies ahead. I have advocated for low crop yields for a number of years now, because weird weather such as this favors a low yield vineyard such as Cerro Prieto. Those folks hanging 5 T/acre of fruit...or more...are in for a rude surprise. In times of wacky, weird, wild, wet , and windy weather, low yields are also going to make the difference between ripening grapes vs not.It is no secret that if a vineyard has world class terroir,and we do,then low yields will translate into truly great wines.

Postscript, 2 days later: Last two days have been pure summer...barnburners. BUT, the most recent news is for that accursed low pressure to return to sitting on the coast. Whew! I sincerely hope they got the facts wrong on the low pressure issue, but I have already noticed the cold air blowing in from the west. Ouch.

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